Monday, January 21, 2008

Myths of (Sentosa) Avalon

There are myths about the American legal system that Filipinos generally subscribe to, the most common of which is that it is generally free from the kind of corruption and political manipulation that its Philippine counterpart is subject to. But the Filipino nurses who were recruited by the Sentosa Recruitment Agency (SRA) to work at the Avalon Garden nursing home facility in New York entertain no such illusions. Their trial on trumped-up criminal charges is set to begin next week on January 28.

Their problems all began when they signed up with the SRA in the Philippines in 2004. They chose SRA over other nurse recruiters from the US because SRA offered to provide them with green cards for working at nursing home facilities, which individually petitioned them, upon their arrival in New York. As an added enticement, they were offered two months of free housing and reimbursement for all their travel expenses.

Among the Filipino nurses who signed up with SRA was Elmer Jacinto, the physician-nurse who topped the Philippine medical board exams in 2004 but who opted to work as a nurse in the US rather than as a doctor in the Philippines. Jacinto was recruited by SRA to work for the Franklin Center nursing home which signed up as his immigration sponsor.

The owner of the Philippine-based SRA, Francris Luyun, facilitated all the immigration paperwork for the nurses and even flew to New York to greet them when they arrived and to escort them to their staffing house.

A few days after their arrival, however, the nurses were informed by Luyun that they could not work for the nursing home facilities that petitioned them because they had no work permits (SRA forgot to submit them). Luyun mentioned that he could provide them temporary work through Sentosa Services where, it turned out, he was the recruitment contractor.

Because the nurses had no other choice, they accepted Sentosa’s offer. Jacinto and nine other nurses were given work at the Avalon Gardens nursing home while other nurses were doled out to about 12 different nursing homes. It turned out that all of them were owned and operated by Sentosa Care, LLC, whose CEO was Bent Philipson, the man who signed all the employment contracts with the Filipino nurses on behalf of the various New York nursing homes which had petitioned them.

They were not employees of the nursing homes where they worked but “agency nurses” employed by Sentosa Services to work as independent contractors at their assigned locations. They were paid below the prevailing wage of the Department of Labor and not paid for the overtime they were compelled to put in.

Felix Vinluan, the lawyer consulted by the nurses, reported that they were provided substandard living accommodations upon their arrival. “Some had to sleep on the cold floor; some had to alternate in using the beds; and most of them complained that their staff house was not properly heated. In fact, two of them who had to sleep on makeshift beds in the garage, because there was no more space for them inside the house,” Vinluan said.

The nurses complained to both Luyun and Philipson about their working conditions and about patient safety as they were tasked with taking care of 40 - 60 patients, but their complaints were ignored, prompting them to seek Vinluan’s counsel. Approximately 27 Filipino nurses, among the hundreds of nurses recruited by Sentosa, signed up with Vinluan who advised them all to file discrimination charges against their respective sponsoring or contracting employers with the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Special Counsel for Immigration-Related Unfair Employment Practices.

Because they were employed by Sentosa Services and not by the nursing homes they were assigned to, and because they never signed employment contracts with Sentosa Services, Vinluan advised them that they were “at-will” employees who could resign anytime in the same way their employer could fire them anytime.

On April 6, 2006, the Filipino nurses at one Sentosa facility resigned at the end of their shifts, followed the next day by Filipinos working at four other Sentosa facilities including ten nurses at Avalon. In response, Philipson and Sentosa Care, LLC filed a civil suit for “breach of contract” against the Filipino nurses and a “tortious interference with contractual relations” cause of action against their lawyer, Vinluan. The nurses filed a cross-complaint against Sentosa for breach of contract. Sentosa then filed complaints against individual nurses with the New York Office of Professional Discipline (OPD) causing the licenses and permits of the nurses to be placed on hold.

The Filipino nurses filed administrative cases against the SRA in Manila for violations of Philippine recruitment rules and regulations before the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA). On March 24, 2006, the POEA administrator issued a preventive suspension order against the SRA.

After US Sen. Charles Schumer contacted the POEA on behalf of Bent Philipson, a campaign contributor, the POEA lifted its suspension order just two weeks after it was issued. Presidential Chief of Staff Michael Defensor also reportedly intervened to prompt the POEA to lift the suspension order.

On September 13, 2006, the New York Office of Professional Discipline (OPD) informed Vinluan that the administrative cases against the Filipino nurses were closed, and that there was “no finding of patient abandonment and that there was no good moral character issue that would prohibit the nurse-permittees from securing their limited permits or nursing licenses.”

After failing to secure a preliminary injunction against the Filipino nurses, Sentosa’s lawyer then sought a meeting with the District Attorney of Suffolk County to discuss their complaints against the Filipino nurses and Vinluan. Because Sentosa's lawyer was a heavy campaign contributor to the DA, he could call in some chips.

On March 22, 2007, the District Attorney secured a Suffolk County Grand Jury indictment against the 10 nurses working at Avalon Gardens, including Elmer Jacinto, as well as their attorney, Felix Vinluan, for “endangering the welfare of pediatric patients” at a Suffolk County nursing home. The nurse-defendants and their attorney have become known as the "Avalon 11".

Last week, the New York Department of Health released the results of its investigation, finding that the pediatric residents of Avalon Gardens "were not placed in jeopardy" by the mass resignation of 10 nurses in 2006. This report was released less than two weeks before the immigrant nurses are scheduled for a January 28 jury trial in Suffolk County, New York, on charges of conspiracy and endangering patients in a pediatric ventilation unit at the Avalon Gardens Rehabilitation and Health Care Center.

Despite this exculpatory report, the Avalon 11 defendants are still concerned about their case because of the political connections of Sentosa’s lawyer with the Suffolk County District Attorney. They have launched a campaign to convince New York Gov. Elliot Spitzer to appoint a Special Prosecutor to take over the case from the Suffolk County D.A. Members of the Filipino community are encouraged to send letters to Gov. Spitzer at the State Capitol, Albany, NY 12224 or by faxing him at 518-474-1513.

Will justice be a myth at the Avalon 11 trial?

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Waves and Ripples

When Philippine President Gloria Arroyo visited the US State Department in 2003, then US Secretary of State Colin Powell complimented her for reaching out to the “2 million Filipinos and Filipino Americans in this country who are the living bond between our two great peoples”. Two million? A San Francisco Chronicle news article on December 8, 2007 reported that there are “2.3 million Filipinos who live in the United States, according to the census bureau (356,378 in the Bay Area)”.

In a news conference in Manila last month, US Ambassador to the Philippines Kristie Kenney estimated that there are 3 million Filipinos in the US according to the US Embassy’s review of the number of US immigrant and non-immigrant visas issued to Filipinos. Three million? The most recent online Wikipedia encyclopedia entry on “Filipino Americans” reported that “in 2007, the Filipino American population numbered approximately 4 million, or 1.5% of the United States population.”

Just exactly how many are we?

The 2000 census that the San Francisco Chronicle relied on was defective and grossly undercounted the number of Filipinos in the US. Over the last 7 years, I have spoken with hundreds, if not thousands, of Filipino “overstaying tourists” (a more apt and polite description than “undocumented aliens” or “illegal immigrants” or “TNTs”) and not one of them who was present in 2000 ever contacted the US Census Bureau to fill out the form that would document his or her presence in the US. If there were 500,000 of them in 2000, the 2000 census should have been 3 million. This half a million estimate has likely doubled by 2008.

Also, in the last 7 years, there have been at least 80,000 Filipinos each year who have legally immigrated to the US including thousands who married US citizens and adjusted their status in the US. Adding all the totals would bring the actual number of Filipinos in the US today to be closer to the 4-million Wikipedia estimate.

Historians and demographers generally agree that there were three “significant immigration waves” of Filipinos who have settled in the United States.

The “first wave” were the agricultural workers or "Sacadas", approximately 125,000 of them, who were brought to work in Hawaii and the West Coast from 1906 to 1935. After the Filipino Exclusion Act (otherwise known as the Tydings-McDuffie Philippine Independence Act) was passed in 1935, legal Filipino immigration to the US was reduced to 50 a year, a quota which lasted until 1965.

The “second wave” refers to the Filipinos, mostly in the US military, who came after 1946, including about 7,000 agricultural workers who were brought to Hawaii and referred to as the “1946 boys”, another 5,000 Filipinas who came after passage of the 1946 War Brides Act and 20,000 Filipino navy recruits who were brought into the US Navy to serve as stewards as part of the 1947 US-RP Military Bases Agreement.

The “third wave” of immigration started in 1965 after passage of the Immigration Act of 1965 which increased legal immigration from the Philippines from 50 to 20,000 a year, including about 4,000 a year for Filipino professionals.

The Filipino American National Historical Society (FANHS) believes there should be a separate category for pre-1906 Filipinos. Their numbers may not justify referring to them as "waves" but more as “ripples”.

The “first ripple” may refer to the Filipino mariners or sailors who worked on commercial ships that docked in US ports. Dozens of them jumped ship in New Orleans in or around 1825 and settled in St. Malo in Barataria Bay in Louisiana as documented in Lafcadio Hearn’s 1875 article which appeared in Harper’s Weekly (“The Mahogany-colored Manilamen of Louisiana”). An 1892 editorial in Graciano Lopez-Jaena’s La Solidaridad referenced the existence of Filipino mariner colonies in Philadelphia, New York and New Orleans. (A Filipino mariner from Manila named Francisco Escalante arrived in San Francisco in 1830 and officially became a citizen of San Francisco in 1849).

An “urban legend” has also appeared in several books reporting that Filipinos from Vera-Cruz, Mexico traveled across the Gulf of Mexico to Barataria Bay, Louisiana in 1763 and many opf them later joined Jean Lafitte’s buccaneers in the 1812 Battle of New Orleans.

A “second ripple” may refer to the Filipino Ilustrados who went to the US, instead of Spain, to further their education. In 1903, a group of 100 students (“fountain pen boys”) left for the United States to study in US colleges and universities. By 1910, all had returned back to play major roles in education, business and government.

A tiny ripple may have caused a major wave. According to Wikipedia, “a chance encounter in 1901 between a trustee of the Hawaiian Sugar Planters Association (HSPA) and a band of Filipino musicians en route to the United States led the planter to speculate about Filipinos as potential plantation workers, for he felt that these musicians had a "healthy physique and robust appearance." This led that trustee to recommend Filipinos as replacements for the Chinese, Japanese and Korean workers who were banned from immigrating to the US in 1906.

Aside from the 125,000 Filipino workers who comprised the “first wave”, there was a also a “third ripple” of Filipinos, numbering about 14,000, who came to the US to study and who returned back to the Philippines after completing their studies.
According to the 1960 US census, there were about 69,070 Filipinos in Hawaii and another 65,459 in California, the two states accounting for about 76% of all Filipinos in the US. The West Coast numbered about 146,340 Filipinos accounting for about 83% of the total while the East Coast and the South held slightly more than 10,000 each and the Mid-West numbered about 8,600.

By 1980, the official number reached 781,894, with 92% living in urban areas. By 1990, the numbers reached 1,450,512 with the West Coast accounting for 991,572, or 68.4%. California in 1990 contained almost 50 percent of the total with Hawaii falling to second place. The 1990 US Census showed that Filipinos lived in all 50 states with Florida, Illinois, New York, New Jersey, Texas, and Washington each being home to more than 30,000 Filipinos.

Because numbers empower, let’s get our numbers right.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Profiles Encourage

The New Year began with the depressing news that deposed President Joseph Estrada was mulling a run for the presidency in 2010 if, he said, “the opposition fails to come to an agreement on a common candidate.” To ensure the opposition’s victory in 2010, he said he would willingly agree to be the unity candidate. How magnanimous.

This news story drove me nuts. Is the Philippine political system so bankrupt and lacking in leaders with moral scruples that a convicted plunderer like Estrada could actually be elected again?

My faith in the Filipino people was redeemed on January 5 when I attended a forum at the San Francisco Public Library and heard Quentin Pastrana, a recent MBA graduate from Georgetown University, speak about his new book, “Profiles Encourage: Ordinary Filipinos Making an Extraordinary Difference” (

Profiles is about ordinary Filipinos who can and should be candidates for the presidency of the Philippines, not the current crap of “presidentiables”, because they are people who are, as Pastrana writes, “living lives of concrete action, meaningful results, and enduring integrity... defining democracy and citizenship through their own lives, their own reach toward others”.

The book features inspiring profiles on: Jaime Aristotle Alip, Al Asuncion, Josette Biyo, John Burtkenley Ong, India and Javier Legaspi, Jika David, CP David, Nereus Acosta, Onofre Pagsanghan, and Milwida “Nene” Guevarra. Below is a brief profile on these outstanding Filipinos:

Dr. Jaime Aristotle Alip started a microfinance project in Laguna in 1986 called CARD (Center for Agricultural and Rural Development) to provide uncollateralized loans of up to 2,000 pesos ($45) “to help the poor help themselves”. Today the CARD group of companies has 160,000 clients (mostly women) all over the Philippines with a total outstanding loan portfolio of more than $20-M and with assets estimated at $35-M. Through Dr. Alip’s leadership, CARD has set a goal of reaching 1-M poor households by 2009 to provide them with low interest loans, and guidance and training in marketing, management, product development and input supply.

Al Asuncion was the Philippine Bantamweight Champion in the 1950s and was once the number 4 contender in the World Boxing Association (WBA) rankings. A friend and protégée of world heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano, Al fought in boxing matches all over the US and Europe and dutifully sent his earnings home to his family. After he retired from boxing, he spent the remainder of life teaching young kids (including 3 of the authors of the Profiles book) boxing skills and life lessons.

Josette Biyo, an unassuming science teacher from the Philippine Science High School in Iloilo City, was the first Asian Grand Winner of the prestigious Intel Excellence in Teaching Award which she received on May 17, 2002 in Louisville, Kentucky. She also holds the distinction of being the only Filipino to have a planet named after her, the Planet Biyo which rotates between Mars and Jupiter. While a science teacher in Iloilo, she regularly brought her students to the barangays to teach the barrio folks how to make cough syrup from plant extracts and soap from coconut oil.

John Burtkenley Ong was working as a researcher at the Manila Observatory of Ateneo when he was asked to document the ancestral domain claims of the Mangyan minorities in Mindoro. In order to file the Mangyan tribe’s claim to its ancestral lands, the tribe needed to identify the boundaries of their lands, which could only be determined with maps. But he could not teach the Mangyans his knowledge of map-making because the Mangyans lacked basic reading, writing and arithmetic skills. So John learned the Mangyan language so he could teach them basic skills to help them preserve their cultural heritage and their lands.

India and Javier Legaspi, wife and husband, can be credited with reviving and reinvigorating the pina weaving tradition and industry in the Philippines from the moribund state it was in when they set up their Heritage Arts and Crafts in Kalibo, Aklan in 1988. India, the artist, “paints and weaves the designs that breathe new life into centuries-old craft” while Javier, the mechanical engineer, “adds strength and form by reinventing the looms.” Heritage’s production capacities, Pastrana writes, are already booked for 2007 and 2008 filling export orders from American and European firms. Heritage is developing new products and expanding into new markets to increase the income and livelihood of the 20,000 women and men engaged in the whole range of the hand-woven fiber industry.

Jika David, the daughter of Prof. Randy David and Karina Constantino-David, was set to climb the corporate ladder of Unilever Philippines when, after 4 years on the job, she applied for a sabbatical in 2004 to work with the Jesuit Volunteers Philippines Foundation in Barrio Macarascas in Palawan. After teaching mathematics to rural kids whose poverty deprived them of the means to realize their dreams, Jika founded DORM (Deepening Our Rural Minds) and raised the funds to keep the school going for another year and send four of its graduates to Manila to further their education.

CP David, the brother of Jika and also a grandson of nationalist historians Renato and Leticia Constantino, received tempting offers from US firms after obtaining his PhD in Geology and Environmental Sciences from Stanford University in 2003. Instead, he returned back to the Philippines and established the UP Environmental Monitoring Laboratory to compile data for weather monitoring and mine pollution monitoring. He invented the Automated Monitoring System (AMS) to compile and transmit weather data via text messaging. His dream is to clean up the Pasig River.

Nereus Acosta set up BINHI (Bukidnon Integrated Network of Home Industries, Inc.), a Grameen-modeled microfinance and cooperative movement, which he founded in 1991 and which, Pastrana writes, has “transformed not only the beneficiaries’ lives but even the province’s culture from dependency, to action self-reliance, and hope.”

Onofre Pagsanghan founded the Dulaang Sibol more than 50 years ago at the Ateneo High School where he has been teaching up to the present. Imagine Mr. Keating, portrayed by Robin Williams, in “Dead Poets Society” and you can visualize the impact that “Mr. Pagsi” has had on his students.

Milwida “Nene” Guevarra, a former Finance Undersecretary, founded the Synergeia Foundation which seeks to deliver quality education through “collaborative responsibility” by transforming local school boards into vehicles for meaningful community participation. In the 250 municipalities where Synergeia has established roots (from the 17 it began with in 2003), the results can be seen in the rise of the test scores of those students from an average of 49% to 75% in reading proficiency and mathematics.

Profiles Encourage is dedicated to the memory of the late Sen. Raul Roco who was probably the best president the Philippines never had. In the book’s Epilogue is a speech Roco delivered in 2003 where he extolled the people to “learn to live by what we say."

"We must walk our talk. Competence, Character, Courage and Commitment, then we can have sustainable human growth, sustainable development among ourselves… It is good to have money. But the more important thing is strong human values and strong human efforts to excel. That must come from within…It must come from the Filipino.”

Faith restored.